Telling us what we want to hear?

Dr Deborah Benson, leadership development consultant at Leaders For Leadership, asks if our perception of good leadership is simply a media distortion?

Amid the many constructs of leadership, one gaining ground is “quiet leadership”. Really it is nothing new. We have all witnessed very effective leaders, who have that still, considered style, yet who frequently surprise people with their effectiveness and motivational power, combined with their uncanny ability to put the fear of God into underperformers without raising their voices.

dr deborah benson

Their approach is analytical, balanced, and often perceptive yet, behind that inner calm, there is a quietly confident steeliness, and their considered approach can make them hard to sway once their minds are made up. Often somewhat introverted, many are actually approachable, supportive and open-minded, whilst others remain an acquired taste – like the best single malts, they take a bit of getting used to, but once appreciated, engender huge loyalty.

The inner calm of such leaders can be highly attractive to employees and clients alike. It’s hard not to see these people as ideal leaders for an organisation or a country, yet why then are they apparently thin on the ground at the top echelons of both?

As long ago as the 1930s, political and management guru, Parker Follett strongly disputed the then and, arguably, still prevailing notion that “aggressiveness and leadership are synonymous”, that leadership was based on dominating and giving orders. “The test of a good foreman is not how good he is at bossing, but how little bossing he has to do” and yet, nearly a century later, we see the loud, media-savvy leaders dominating our political arena, and their peers lauded as the captains of industry. Why do we fall for the heroic model of leadership? Why do we appear to need our leaders to be over-confident, super-articulate, even arrogant? Why do we accept “being tough” as one of the primary requisites of leadership, despite history showing us that aggressive leaders generally do not deliver the best results?

Is it because the media needs good sound bites? A quiet leader, not prone to dramatic announcements, nor banging the egotistical drum of success – whether success has truly been achieved or not – is not such a good press story. Perhaps the public demands excitement. Reading about quiet, honest, intelligent leaders just isn’t as interesting.

However, maybe we can’t blame the media. Do the public mistake aggression for strength, confidence for insight? We are the post-war generations that were fed the heroic image of leadership. Nothing inspires our loyalty and patriotism more than a good military victory – as Thatcher found. Churchill may have been a great war-time leader too, but we forget his star dimmed rapidly in peacetime.

So is the media simply feeding off our desire for “heroic” leaders, those charismatic un-yielding individuals who ride in to save us – even when it was often they that caused the crisis in the first place? Perhaps, with 41 significant military conflicts on-going, the world needs to reassess leadership, at work and in politics, and start to value that “quiet” leader.

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